January 22, 2014 | by Mark Lee
Fixing D.C. elections to let independent voters play
voting, District of Columbia, independent voters, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C.’s dilemma might best be remedied by “non-partisan” elections. All candidates would compete in a single primary open to all voters, with the top two candidates proceeding to the general election.

In D.C., independent voters don’t really get to play the game come election time.

Not only that, the current system allows the dominant Democratic Party’s primary candidates to proceed to the general election winning only a plurality of votes. It will likely happen again on April 1 in the historically determinant Democratic primary for mayor.

These are separate problems. But there may be a single solution.

Due to overwhelming Democratic registration at nearly 75 percent, winners of local elections are decided in the dominant party’s primary election. The only exception is a requirement that two of four At-Large D.C. Council seats be held by a non-majority-party. This provision is intended to prevent absolute single-party control but is both easily and commonly overridden by Democrats changing affiliation to “independent” as if changing socks.

Despite being primary participation outcasts, slightly more than 17 percent of the District’s registered voters have selected “No Party” as their political affiliation. This reduces voting eligibility to general elections, being prohibited from any party’s “closed primary” election.

The percentage of independent registrations would undoubtedly skyrocket if D.C. election rules were revised to eliminate participation restrictions. Independent voters are a fast-growing phenomenon in places with broader participation rules. In addition, nearly half of Americans now self-identify as “independents” – even if mostly in attitude while retaining a party preference – an all-time high in 25 years of Gallup polling.

Of course, both local Democratic Party officials and incumbents are not eager for any change weakening the incentive to register with the party. Why would they? There is no upside to surrendering the power of a determinant process exclusively involving party registrants or offering other parties a potential path to victory.

It’s partly understandable, in reference to the “open primary” system used in Virginia and other states where voters are not required to register by party and independents may vote in any party primary. Even those registered with a political party may vote in another party’s primary upon making a declaration they intend to support that party in the general election. There is an argument for letting political parties restrict primary voting to the party-registered. This prevents the possibility a party would have to “associate” with a winning candidate that did not adhere to particular political positions.

The rules for voting in primary elections vary by state and there are differing systems in place. And, yes, various protocols lead to multiple types of strategic mischief. In a fully “open” primary, for example, competing party members switch over to vote for candidates perceived weaker as general election opponents, especially if their own party’s primary is already sewn-up by a strong or single candidate or popular incumbent.

Neither “open” nor “semi-closed” primary systems that allow only independents to choose a party primary are perfect alternatives. Another option, determining a winner by ranking preference in “automatic run-off” primaries is also subject to strategic “gaming” by voters and introduces an unduly complex “poker game” mentality into the process.

D.C.’s dilemma might best be remedied by “non-partisan” elections. All candidates would compete in a single primary open to all voters, with the top two candidates proceeding to the general election.

One or both of the top two candidates might still win only a plurality. All voters, however, would have the opportunity to choose among all candidates, with a final selection available to voters in the general election. After all, no system is perfect.

A non-partisan system would provide for the least political disruption in a city with single party dominance. It would yield freedom from needing to register with the dominant party to attain electoral equity while also requiring candidates to compete side-by-side, as we already do for special elections.

It may be time to allow D.C. residents to register and fully participate in election outcomes without forcing affiliation with a political party.

It could be the best possible first-step election reform most appropriate for D.C.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

7 Comments
  • Independent voter registration is now at 46% nationwide, and independents will outnumber political party members by the end of this year. Does that mean that independent voters will gain the ability to exercise their electoral rights?
    No, they will have to take down the two-party system first, which will take more than just outnumbering them. Our present system of elections might be compared with the free and open election that took place in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Russians were free to vote for candidates of one party, the Communist Party. American elections have become the same except that Americans are free to vote for members of the Democratic Party or to cast a useless vote for a candidate of the Republican Party, a party that went defunct in the election of 2012. Independent voters are not allowed to vote or to run for public office except in certain circumstances. There is a growing movement among Democratic Party organizers to turn independent voters into a quasi-party to replace Republicans, since the Republican that Democrats were using to prop up the Republican side of the two-party machine, Chris Christie, just went the way of Mitt Romney. Well, the Federalists hung on for sixteen years after they went defunct in 1800. The only thing that will fix this is independent candidates for public office, but since about 1970, party politicians have passed election laws at state level to exclude independent voters from being candidates, making them the only Americans excluded from protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • Isn’t the most plausible path toward breaking the Democratic Party’s hold on the DC’s Mayor’s Office, for discerning democrats, informed independents and savvy republicans to rally behind David Catania’s candidacy and elect a non-party affiliated Mayor? It’s a message that will be heard loud and clear in the political back rooms of Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8.

    The power to change things isn’t lacking, it simply hasn’t been seized.

  • Thanks for writing one of the rare articles that recognizes that 1/5 of DC voters have deliberately rejected the Democratic and Republican parties, even though that means they effectively cannot vote in what is the “real” election for most races, the April primary. I believe No Party registrants can vote in any primary on a “challenge” ballot, a kind of provisional ballot that will be counted later or separately if a race is close. And this year they can do so not only in the Democratic primary, but in DC’s first Libertarian primary. We Libertarians also welcome No Party folks to re-register as Libertarians.

  • Finally an article where a writer notices that 1/5 of DC voters have rejected the Democrats and Republicans.

  • Interesting column. But the reality is that political parties stand for something and associating and working within a Party gives you the opportunity to influence it. DC is an interesting place and it is clear why the overwhelming majority of individuals are registered in the Democratic Party. It is the Party whose principles match what they believe. It is easy to become involved in the Party in D.C. and to make your views known if you just take the time to do it. Of course it is much simpler to say I am an Independent and then don’t bother to get involved until there is one particular issue that bothers you and then claim you didn’t have a voice.

    I am one that is opposed to opem primaries. If you want to have a say within the Party don’t stand on the sidelines get involved. I think the Democratic Party represents the principles I believe in. I have fought for those principles all my life. Having someone who stays on the sidelines come in at the last moment and telling me they suddenly decided to get involved and choose who will represent the Party I have worked for just seems wrong.

    Being an ‘Independent’ may sound nice but it isn’t really being anything. I feel I am an independent thinker but do get involved. In DC we have a system where you can get elected to the Council based on not being a Democrat or Republican. So someone like David Catania who decided to leave the Republican Party then decided to be an Independent so that he could keep his seat. Had he declared a Democrat he would have had to give up his current seat and enter into a primary next time around. He figured it was easier just to register Independent.. The question I have and it’s not paricularly directed at Catania- is why anyoe would move to DC and not chose to register as a Democrat if they want a role in that Party to choose its candidates. What principles of the Democratic Party do they disagree with preventing them from registering with the Party?

    People are totally free to register as they wish so why blame party rules rather than blame yourself for not registering in a way that allows you to participate as fully as you like?

  • Mr. Winn is simply wrong when he says that ‘”independent voters are not allowed to vote or to run for public office.” For example, for Mayor any independent can run by getting 3,000 signatures on a petition. In order to get on the ballot for the Democratic primary, 2,000 is needed from the smaller pool of only registered Democrats. So the hurdles are about the same.

  • If you also want to let independents in DC "play," invite their candidates to the debates.

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